On my first full day in Beijing, I woke up bright and early to visit Mao’s Mausoleum. For some strange reason that makes even less sense than their economic ideas, 20th century Communists had a habit of preserving their dead leaders’ bodies for all to see. To this very day, Lenin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Kim il-Sung, and recent addition Kim Jong-il can all be found above ground. (Hugo Chavez was going to join the embalming party, but apparently he didn’t RSVP in time.) Talk about not being able to let somebody go.
This whole bizarre practice takes me back to the night in CCD (Catholic education classes for public school kids) when Father Dennis Carver told us about the incorruptible saints. “Their bodies are perfectly preserved,” he told us. “They don’t decay.”
“How do you know?” we asked.
“Because they’re on display. You can go and see them. Some of them are so well-preserved you’d think they were gonna open their eyes and start talking to you. ”
Naturally, this just blew my adolescent mind. As a kid, I’d always sort of understood that there were two versions of Catholicism. There was the mainstream Catholicism I got at school, all Beatitudes and Sacraments and Stations of the Cross and “Love thy neighbor.” And then there was the weird Rosary Rally Catholicism, all bleeding statues and “The Blessed Mother appeared in my kitchen sink and told me 10 signs of the End Times.” But never in my experience with either one had I ever been told that there were churches out there with dead bodies in display cases. Father Dennis could never have predicted the barrage of questions this would unleash from my teenage brain.
Why don’t their bodies decay?
Does someone have to clean the display case?
If so, can you imagine having that on your list of work responsibilities? Vacuum the floor, empty the trashcans, dust the pews, Windex the glass case with the body inside.
What would you do if you tapped on the glass and the saint opened his/her eyes?
Does someone have to stay with the body all the time?
How could you possibly pay attention during Mass with a body sitting there?
Does anyone else think this whole thing is a little – I don’t know – morbid?
I was tempted to put my hotel concierge through the same kind of scrutiny, but I collected myself and simply explained to him, as politely as I could, that I wanted to see Mao’s body. Hearing this, he took out a map and told me to visit a place called the Temple of Heaven, which he circled. My Lonely Planet guide said that Mao’s body was in Tiananmen Square, but I assumed the concierge knew what he was talking about. And “Temple of Heaven” does sound like the kind of name a group of Communists would give their leader’s final resting place. I thanked him and headed out for the subway station.
The subway, I should mention, was where I first noticed a major difference between China and South Korea. In Korea, security is very relaxed. You rarely see policemen walking around, and when you do they often look bored. Airport security lines move quickly, with an unspoken understanding that it’s really just a formality. (When I flew home to the States last year, two security workers actually stopped what they were doing to take pictures of Kimchi.) Even at the DMZ – the most heavily fortified military border in the world – the South Korean guides cheerfully chirp away about where dynamite is hidden in case a road needs to be blocked during a North Korean invasion. This is not the case in China.
In China, or at least in Beijing, uniformed police and military officers are omnipresent. I don’t want to exaggerate and say that it feels like an Orwellian police state, but it’s very clear when you look around that China is not to be effed with. Getting on the subway, I had to walk through a metal detector, get waved down with a baton, and have my backpack inspected. Curiously, they never took away the little spikes I had for my shoes in case of ice or snow.
As for the subway ride itself, well, here’s where I can give China credit for doing something a little better than Korea. In spite of China’s enormous population, the Chinese subway never felt crowded. Even better, the Chinese seem to understand that it’s easier to get on the subway if you wait and let the other people get off of it first. Sorry, Korea, I love you, but it’s just a fact. Personal space and straight lines just aren’t your thing.
When I got to the Temple of Heaven exit, I ran into a Western couple with some sort of European accents I couldn’t really place. I asked if they knew which way I should go to see Mao, and they confirmed my earlier suspicion. Mao wasn’t here. He was in Tiananmen Square. Unfortunately, his mausoleum was only open from 8 a.m. until noon, which meant I probably didn’t have time to see it that day. Whatever. I’ve got a whole week here.
As long as I was there, I figured I should go ahead and see this Temple of Heaven thing. But first, I popped into the Pearl Market (recommended to me by the European couple) where a cute Chinese girl named Jasmine quickly complimented my appearance, told me how much she loved Korean music, and sold me a selfie stick and iPod charger at what she called a “friend price.” Doing the math, I realize that it was only about 6 bucks for all of it, which actually was one of the better deals I negotiated during my trip. Maybe that’s why the Pearl Market has been endorsed by at least one U.S. president.
There’s really not much I can say about the Temple of Heaven except that the grounds were very beautiful and I enjoyed watching the old people play games along one of the walkways.
But, once you’ve seen two or three Buddhist temples you’ve basically seen them all. I looked around for about 45 minutes and then started contemplating what I could do to redeem the day. Mao was out. Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City were undoubtedly packed by that time, so they would have to wait too. I wanted to save my shopping for the end of the trip when I knew how much money was left over after meals and tour costs. And then, a flash of genius: I should go to the zoo.
Think quick. What’s the first animal that comes to your mind when I say Beijing Zoo?… Right. The pandas. The pandas are such a special attraction, in fact, that they are not included with the regular price of admission. You have to pay extra to see them.
Needless to say, I didn’t come all the way across the world just to be swindled into seeing some fucking bears, so I opted for the tour without pandas…Yeah, I’m just kidding. The pandas were my first stop.
My first observation was that one of them looked depressed. I felt a little sad thinking that maybe its environment wasn’t big enough for it, but then I saw the big outdoor space where all the bears are given time to roam freely and play at designated times. That made me feel a little better.
After I was finished with the pandas, I roamed around in amazement at just how big the Beijing Zoo is. I’m sure it’s nothing new to people in major cities like New York or Chicago, but the zoos I’m most familiar with are the ones in New Orleans and Memphis. I could be wrong, but the Beijing Zoo seemed to dwarf both of those.
They had lemurs.
They had foxes (the Room 13 classroom animal).
They had lions.
They had amphinbians and repetiles.
They had golden monkeys.
Long story short, they had lots of different critters to stare at.
But far and away, the animals I found most impressive were the tigers. Understand, these weren’t some little rinky-dink Frosted Flakes tigers like you see in the States. These were jacked-up, steroid-munching, jungle tigers that probably came from Thailand or something. The Beijing Zoo had the orange and white kinds. Watching them pace back and forth, I imagined their inner monologues: I’m a muthaf***in’ monster!…I’m a beast!…I run the jungle!…
I was glad I was alone, because I must have spent at least 30 minutes just watching the tigers. Truly beautiful animals. I even tried to take a selfie in front of the big tiger statue, but I couldn’t get a good angle and a lot of people were stopping to laugh at the big American guy with the selfie stick. haha
I wasn’t sure what time the zoo closed, so I just wandered around until it started getting dark and then guessed my way back to the exit. Along the way, I saw a half-frozen lake with a lot of ducks swimming around. It reminded me of a famous line from American literature:
“You know those ducks in that lagoon right near Central Park South? That little lake? By any chance, do you happen to know where they go, the ducks, when it gets all frozen over? Do you happen to know, by any chance?”
I posted it on Facebook, but nobody got it. So, a little contest to bring Day 1 to a close.
For a special Chinese gift, who’s the first person who can name the novel without clicking the link or Googling? I’ll leave you to that now.
See you on Day 2.